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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Big Bend National Park: The Only Place for Colima Warbler in the US

[Big Bend National Park, TX. June 2014]

Most of our warblers are seen fairly well when in migration along well-established flyways that cross wide swathes of US territory in Spring and Fall.

Moreover, the breeding season affords additional opportunity to observe those warblers whose nesting grounds encompass either several states (most of our warblers such as Cerulean, Swainson's, etc); or, a few states (some of our warblers eg., Red-faced Warbler, Grace's); or, rarely, a single state (eg., Kirtland's, Golden-cheeked).

However, when it comes to limited distribution, our range-restriction champion must surely be the Colima Warbler: it is found not in a single state or even a single county -- its presence in the US is confined to only one National Park (Big Bend) and that too to a handful of trails in the Chisos Mountains area of the Park.

Colima Warbler seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail

Appropriately, some very special effort is required to see such a special bird: A 10-mile loop that ascends from 5,400 ft to 7,100 ft starts at the Chisos Basin Trailhead beginning with Laguna Meadows, then Colima Warbler, Boot Canyon and finally down on Pinnacles Trail. The terrain can be rough and steep. To do this with a DSLR, a 600 mm lens and the mandatory gallon of water (there is no drinking water along the way) in tow, is a hugely strenuous and physically uber-exhausting ordeal that should only be attempted with great care.

Colima Warbler seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail -- note yellow rump

Visually, Colima Warbler, at first glance, doesn't appear to have the chromatic charisma that would compel middle-aged birders to undertake acts of hiking heroics. Although it lacks the visual "punch" of a Blackburnian or Red-faced Warbler, what it does possess is an understated elegance composed of a grey body with yellow highlights in the vent and rump; a brown patch on the crown and white eye-rings. Indeed, the obvious mustard vent (or crissum) is referenced in its scientific name Oreothlypis crissalis.

Colima Warbler seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail -- note yellow vent

The common name "Colima" comes to us from the area of Sierra Nevada de Colima in Mexico where the type specimen was collected. However, before the Colima Warbler is seen, it is the song of the male that betrays the first sign of the warbler's presence -- somewhat akin to Pine Warbler's song.

Sign at the end of the Laguna Meadows Trail

After completing the Colima Trail, it is a further trek to Boot Canyon before catching Pinnacles Trail for the descent. Boot Canyon trail offers some breathtaking landscape photo opportunities (which were not taken adequate advantage of). Boot Canyon's giveaway is the upside down boot:

The "Boot" in Boot Canyon

And, it was on Pinnacles Trail that the second Colima Warbler of the hike was observed:

Colima Warbler seen on the Pinnacles Trail

Colima Warbler is in the same genus as Virgina's, Nashville and Orange-crowned Warblers and the family resemblance is certainly visible.

Colima Warbler seen on the Pinnacles Trail
Colima Warblers are ground nesters and their population trends are relatively stable.

Colima Warbler seen on the Pinnacles Trail

This is probably the last month that this male will sing. The best time to see them here is April through June and they will depart to their Mexican grounds in August.

Beautiful vistas seen on the way down:

... coupled with a magical sunset spied through the canyon:

Mercifully, the hike's end nears as the Chisos Basin comes into view:

Seen from left to right are the green water tanks, the Chisos Lodge buildings (Block A of the Casa Grande where this blogger stayed); in the far middle is the Store and the Park Office while the rightmost building is Registration, the Gift Shop and the Dining Hall.

Tips if (preferably "when") you go to Big Bend:
  • Fly into San Antonio or Midland-Odessa Airports. The former has the added advantage of offering birding opportunities within city limits: bird the Friedrich Wilderness Park for Golden-cheeked Warbler. The latter is closer to the Park. Either way, be prepared for long drives.
  • Stay a minimum of 2 nights (more if time permits) in the Park. While there are hotel accommodations outside the Park (eg., at Alpine or Marathon), it is highly advantageous to stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge to maximize birding time and minimize driving time. 
  • The "must do" trails: Laguna Meadows (ascent) and Pinnacles (descent) Trails (allow for at least half a day to do this strenuous 10 mile hike). The Window Trail; the Green Gulch, Sam Nail Ranch and Rio Grande Village.
  • On the drive back to the Airport, consider making a stop at Davis Mountains State Park
Other references: Link to a 1936 publication on the discovery of the Colima Warbler nest at Big Bend by Josselyn Van Tyne.

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